Pressure cooking was my mother's go-to culinary technique. As a full-time student and a part-time farmer, she had no patience for complicated cookery. Using a pressure cooker meant she could load the dining table with tasty, fuss-free meals that she'd thrown together quickly. In short, the pressure cooker was my mother's best kitchen friend.
Eventually, mom turned over most of the cooking chores to her only daughter — me. I'd always been interested in cooking anyway, toddling around the kitchen with my nose dusted in flour at a young age, and she understood that I was ripe for culinary picking. Our pressure cooker was one of the first implements she taught me to use.
Mom's cooker dated from the 1950s. Unlike quiet modern models, its jiggle-top pressure regulator rocked and hissed during operation. Despite the noise, that old aluminum pot produced many tender and flavorful beef stews. My personal favorite was chicken and noodles, made with a free-range bird from grandma's farm and dough mixed of pastured eggs and wheat flour. Our farm-fresh ingredients produced a nutritious dish, but the pressure cooker got credit for the amazingly short cooking time — less than 15 minutes from start to finish.
Resembling heavy, lidded stockpots, pressure cookers are designed to seal tightly so that their contents can cook under pressure—about 15 psi (pounds per square inch). Because water under pressure boils at 250 degrees Fahrenheit rather than the standard 212 degrees, food inside a pressure cooker cooks rapidly. Most dishes cook in just one-third of the normal time.
Pressure cookers have other benefits besides saving time. Steam pressure tenderizes tough meats, making inexpensive cuts fork-tender. Flavors inside the pot are concentrated because food is steamed using a small amount of liquid. Stoves use less energy because cooking times are short, and kitchens aren't heated up during the summer months, thereby increasing a home's energy efficiency. What's not to love about pressure cooking?
While new models cost anywhere from $60 to more than $200, old pressure cookers are available for a pittance at garage sales and flea markets. If you buy an old cooker, count on replacing some parts. The lid's rubber gasket must be in good condition to contain the steam that brings the pot up to pressure. The lids of pressure cookers are fitted with operating valves, dials and pressure indicators, many of them made of plastic and all of them capable of cracking and breaking. In the end, you may decide that a new pressure cooker is worth the extra cost, particularly when you factor in modern safety features such as release valves and locking handles.
My mother got rid of her old pressure cooker more than a decade ago. After she learned that I'd begun cooking with a new model in my own kitchen, we discussed all the benefits of modern pressure cookers. She was unaware of their quiet operation (compared to the old jiggle-tops) and built-in safety features. We reminisced about all the delicious pressure-cooked meals we'd made back in the day, salivating over memories of savory stews, stocks and soups. And then she asked me to buy her a new pressure cooker for Mother's Day.
For pressure cooking recipes and information on how to use a pressure cooker, see Get to Know the Wonder-Working, Timesaving Pressure Cooker.
Rebecca Martin will present a workshop at the Puyallup, Wash., FAIR.
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